ROME — “I’m the one. Put a face to it. I had a mother and father who loved me. Remember me when fighting human trafficking.”
Those words belong to Rani Hong, who was born in India. She was stolen from her parents at the age of seven, and sold to a slave master, who kept her in a cage to be “seasoned into submission.” When she was eight, due to her physical condition and emotional state, she was near death.
According to United Nations statistics, 40 million people are trapped in slavery today.
“They thought I would die, and that I had no value,” Hong said on Monday. “But they wanted one more [source of] profit from me, so my captor sold me into international adoption in Canada.”
Today, Hong is a leading voice in the fight against modern-day slavery. Together with her husband Trong, a Vietnamese refugee who fled his country at the age of nine to avoid being recruited as a child soldier, she runs the Tronie Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing freedom to those who are enslaved and to help eliminate the root causes of slavery.
Rani Hong was at the Vatican this weekend, participating in a Nov. 4-6 workshop titled “Assisting Victims in Human Trafficking – Best Practice in Resettlement, Legal Aid and Compensation,” organized by the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences (PASS).
Hong spoke with journalists on Monday, together with Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the PASS; Margaret S. Archer, president of the academy; and Jami Solli, founder of the Global Alliance for Legal Aid and co-organizer of the workshop.
“In drug trafficking, you sell the product once,” Hong said. “Children are sold over and over and over. Selling children for adoption is increasing, but it’s not being discussed. There’s not one country that’s immune to it. We need to be able to educate the public, to have mainstream media talk about it.”
The workshop looked into the illegal industry of human trafficking and modern-day slavery, which includes forced labor and prostitution, selling of babies for adoption and organ harvest. A $32 billion-a-year industry, human trafficking is on the rise, and, according to Archer, today it’s becoming more profitable than the two other major illegal industries: Drug trafficking and arms dealing.
Back in 2013, Pope Francis, who’s been fighting against the commercialization of persons since he was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, tasked Sánchez Sorondo with addressing the issue. Since then, the PASS has organized many workshops dedicated to the issue, including a gathering of international religious leaders committed to the eradication of the industry.
According to Archer, one such gathering held in Sept. 2015, which included both Francis and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, continues to be PASS’s biggest contribution to the cause. During the meeting, participants lobbied the UN leader to make sure the eradication of slavery was included into the Sustainable Development Goals signed by the 193 member states.
Known as the SDGs, they’re a set of goals to be achieved by 2030, including ending poverty and hunger, and improving access to health care and education. However, trafficking in persons wasn’t included in the draft agreement.
In Rome, Ban told the leaders of the PASS that he’d work on it, but couldn’t guarantee it would happen: “People would kill for the change of a comma,” Archer recalled him saying.
However, when the SDGs were voted later that year, trafficking was included among the targets of Goal 8: “Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labor, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labor, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labor in all its forms.”
Francis wasn’t present at this workshop, but he did send Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin to the opening session.
Among the reasons fueling the growth of the industry, Archer pinpointed the “new forms of digital recruitment.” There’s much left to be done to fight this industry, she said, but thanked Francis for “showing the right path.”
“Without his moral authority, I cannot imagine we would have been able to achieve the progress made thus far,” Archer said.
According to the British woman, the workshop tried to think from the perspective of the victims, which is why several of the participants were survivors, many of whom are today fighting the industry.
One of Archer’s hopes is to be able to involve Catholics at a grassroot level, “harnessing the Church’s existing resources,” particularly the network of parishes.
She’s not interested in the bishops’ conferences, because beyond issuing pastoral letters, she believes there’s little they can do: “I’m interested in turning passive parishes into active ones.”
The workshop also explored the extent of the phenomenon and the best practices being used around the world to fight it. Quoting both Benedict XVI and Francis, Sánchez Sorondo called human trafficking a “crime against humanity.”
The archbishop recalled that “there have been infinite congregations of sisters who have helped the victims,” but it is very important that the laity get involved to help at a “spiritual, psychological and human” level.
John McEldowney, professor of law at the University of Warwick and a former World Bank visiting fellow in the Supreme Tribunal of Justice in Venezuela, who was recently appointed to the PASS, was also at hand at the Vatican news conference.
He sees the next step in the fight against human trafficking to be an international collaborative effort at every level, including the “smallest community in the smallest part of the world,” with governments and NGOs, to consider the framework of the charter for victims, putting them at the center.
“The heart of the matter is individuals being motivated to take responsibility in terms of our humanity, which is a part of Pope Francis’s message,” he said. “In our humanity we find our answer, and the answer is that we’re helping our neighbor. Who’s the neighbor? The one who’s been trafficked, and who might eventually become part of our community.”
He acknowledged it’s “marvelously ambitious,” the steps are slow, but they’re being made, including raising awareness “so people will understand that slavery was never abolished.”